A Chat With Neal Doughty of REO Speedwagon, Part 1

As the CMAC Summer Concert Series continues, the remaining lineup proves to keep the momentum building for Central New Yorker’s to enjoy the best of the best this summer. This week’s featured band, REO Speedwagon, has proven to be one of the crowds favorites for many years, and personally they are my favorite.  So please accept this disclaimer right up front that if you’re looking for an unbiased interview from this editor, this will not be one as it was almost impossible for me not to gush like a school girl as I spoke with Neal Doughty about the band, their careers and personal life.  Yep, just call me Madden on this as I blatantly show my favoritism for this band.  How can you not?

REO Speedwagon

A southern Illinois gal myself, I feel a kindred connection with these guys as they began their careers only 114 miles north of my home town of Flora.  While attending University of Illinois in Champaign, IL, Neal and classmate Alan Gratzer formed a band and after a few gigs on campus, found a strong following of fans.  Traveling all over campus and the local region, it took REO Speedwagon (named after a flatbed truck built by Ranson E. Olds) no time at all to be recognized by the powers that be with a record deal.  The rest?  Well, I’ll let Neal fill you in.

Kathy Stockbridge (KS): Hi Neal, thank you so very much for agreeing to talk with us today at NYS Music.  I have to say I’m a huge fan.  I’ve been listening to you folks since eight-tracks were around. I can recall cruising Main Street on a Friday and Saturday night with the windows down blasting the music. Yep, I’m a diehard fan.

Neal Doughty (ND): Wow, you don’t sound old enough to be listening to eight-tracks.

KS:  Already Neal, you are my favorite person!

ND:  Well we are off to a great start then.

KS:  When you guys started out, you started out in college.  Talk to my readers that might not have been around as long as I have, about the experience of how you came together and formed REO Speedwagon.

ND: Well this band started off strictly for fun. The original four members back in the dormitory at the University of Illinois, well we were all engineering students; like scientific types, and totally planning on becoming some sort of engineers, as the University of Illinois is a very respected school for that.  Across the hall from me in the dormitory happened to live a guy named Alan Gratzer.  He was our first original drummer, and he and I became really good friends in the dorms.  I had never even played in a band.  He was in a little campus band that was just playing radio hits and I started following them around and became friends with them.  Their keyboard player just wanted to stick with what they were doing but the other three guys wanted to explore some newer music coming out of the west coast, Europe, and England; so we just kinda started a new band with me playing keyboards instead of him. Really strictly for fun, playing on weekends, making enough money to buy doughnuts.  And that original group was called REO Speedwagon.  That’s the name of an old truck I had read about in engineer class. This was 1967, there was no MTV, there was no satellite radio, or video.

There were bands out in California like The Doors and Hendrix the people in the Midwest had not even heard of when we started doing their songs. Since we seemed to have more of an alternative set list and things that people hadn’t heard before, we quickly became the most popular band on campus and we got busier and busier until eventually we didn’t have time to go to class any more.   The University of Illinois is not a place you can get away with that, it’s a tough school,  so we just went with it.  We thought, well we can always go back to school if this doesn’t work out. But slowly over a period of ten years we just got more and more serious about it until we woke up one day realizing this is what we did. We’re never going to become engineers, we’re just going to keep doing this.  This was just totally an accident and the farthest thing of what I thought would happen in my career. Now here we are, almost 50 years later.

KS:  It was meant to be.  Were you from a musical background, and I read that you saved up to purchase your own keyboard and taught yourself how to play. Is that accurate?

ND:  Yes, that is.  My parents had a piano at home and my mom played it. Eventually it ended up in the basement.  I started sneaking down there messing around on the thing.  That’s about the time that The Beatles hit, and I would try to play their songs by ear on the piano, at my high school parties. I played it a lot at home but I never even thought it would be something I would do professionally. I had always been interested in some sort of entertainment. I looked at some colleges that had good theater departments, even some radio and television.  So that was in the back of my head, but what at the time I was good at was engineering.  I had a scholarship to the University of Illinois based on how well I scored on the scientific parts of the pre-college testing.  I was pretty sure that’s what I was going to do.  I probably would have really liked it as I still keep up with development with physics and science in general. But, this has worked out just fine.

KS:  Yep, I’m pretty sure this was the path you were meant to take.  I read that your first gig was at a fraternity house.  Share with our readers about your first gig experience.

ND:  We had been rehearsing in the dorm and one of the members that lived off campus had his own townhouse so we rehearsed there a lot. We just rehearsed all the time and we figured sooner or later we’re going to have to actually play a show and see what happens.  So we put an ad in the campus newspaper with a picture of us saying ‘we’d love to play at your event, we’re a new band on campus’, so yeah, it was a fraternity party where the fraternity invited a sorority over for dinner, but the thing was the dinner was going to turn into a food fight that they had planned in advance.  We got paid $40 and we set up on top of  a bunch of tables that were shoved together.  When we got there, there was brown wrapping paper on all of the walls.  We wondered what that was about, and it turned out because of the food fight that the sorority did not know about.

KS:  Oh, so you guys did not know about it either?

ND: No, we did not know about it. We were suspicious of why they had covered up all the walls with brown paper, but it was our first show ever and we were kinda excited actually.  We were doing just fine then the big food fight broke out as we were finishing up and there was just food all over our stuff.  Mashed potatoes in the drum hardware, and that’s not easy to get out. We kinda thought it was funny and actually we were not mad.  This is what happens when you are in show business.

KS: Whoa, so please tell me this is not what show business is all about, and it’s not happened again?

ND:  No, this has never happened again. There have been a few instances where people have thrown things at us, but they were not planned in advance. No, we’ve been pretty lucky, none of us have ever been hit with mashed potatoes again in our entire careers. So it’s working out okay.

KS:  After you played gigs in town and started traveling out to the surrounding area did you start performing original songs or were you strictly covers?  When did you start writing and performing your own music?

ND: The first little four piece band, two of the guys left after the one semester because they graduated. So it was just Alan and myself so we were in search of a singer and a guitar player.  That’s the record we made with Terry Luttrell, he had originally brought a guitar player with him who left because he was more of a jazz player and didn’t think there was any future in rock and roll. So then is when we got Gary Richrath, the guitar player on all of our records we did for EPIC, and he played guitar on all the hits. Shortly after that we got Kevin, our singer who is still with us to this day. Kevin and Gary were song writers. They very quickly started bringing in original material and that’s when we went to a whole different phase. We stayed popular, but it was with our own original music. We still played some songs by The Doors and The Beatles but we interspersed pretty well with our own material.

Actually, we got our record contract because a producer from NY, our management talked him into coming to one of our shows in the Midwest and a couple of thousand people at an outdoor show.  We were playing all of our original stuff and a terrible thunderstorm came along.  We had to cover up all the equipment with plastic and run for cover to the side of the stage but the people were standing there in the rain still cheering for like half an hour, hoping we could come back. So we went over to the, his name was Paul Leka, he wrote “Green Tambourine” and “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Good” which were huge hits from that time period, e had his own studio and I said “wow that’s too bad you didn’t even get to hear our best material” and he pointed to the screaming crowd and said “that’s all I need to hear”.  And literally, that’s really what happened.  So he had a studio in Connecticut and we made our first record there.  He shopped it around and eventually found some people at EPIC that really liked it. We had some big fans there at that record label. So that’s how we went from campus band to as soon as we got our own material we got some interest.  Took us forever to get a hit, but..

KS:  I disagree. It was your earlier material that drew me to you guys.  In 1977 when you put out your Live – You Get What You Play For album, because you definitely are a Live Band.  Your energy levels you create at a live performance is off the charts. When you recorded that “Live..” album, especially the song “157 Riverside Avenue”, you hooked me then.  And that was way before your commercial success with Hi Infidelity. 

ND:  Yeah that was our first really successful album.  That album went Gold, and eventually Platinum.  EPIC was so happy about that one that they flew us out to London for their big convention and presented us with the Gold Album there in front of record people from all over the world. But our first hit single on the radio didn’t happen till 80 or 81.  That Hi Infidelity record that really put us on the map worldwide.  That was our 11th album.

KS:  My favorite album, besides the Live album was You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish.

REO Speedwagon

ND:  Those were all popular as albums, but we had never had a number one song and EPIC was really wanting us to getting around to doing that. That all just all came together on Hi Infidelity. I really have to give credit to the people at EPIC Records, and they still handle our older records and we still have a good relationship with them, but they don’t think we need to make any new records. They aren’t really interested in that. We’ve made a couple that we’ve basically produced ourselves; financially and artistically. They had their own audience.  They haven’ t been as successful as the ones before, but it just let’s people know that we haven’t stopped thinking.  But a group now a days isn’t going to get eleven chances on making a hit record.  The label will say, you get one shot. So we were lucky to be in that era when a record company would nurture a band for years instead of giving up on them. And we sold it door to door all over the country. You just played EVERYWHERE.  Still to this day we are known best and most respected for our live shows. Even critics who don’t really like our “pop”songs from the 80’s they will still begrudgingly admit that our true strength is as a live band. We’ve always done that.  People who only know us by the power ballads that we played in the 80’s are shocked when they see who we are live.

KS:  It’s funny that you bring that up because I wanted to ask you; there was a completely different sound to Hi Infidelity from your earlier albums.  You were more rock-based with strong instrumentals, whereas Hi Infidelity was more pop based. Did you find yourselves gradually moving towards that direction and sound or was it conscious choice to mix it up a bit with a new sound?

ND: It was not a purposeful choice.  Kevin who wrote those two big number one power ballads, he wasn’t really, they were just songs he wrote like all his other songs and came from an honest place somewhere inside of him. They just happened to click as radio hits. He didn’t go about them any other way than all the songs before.  Those songs are probably why we are still able to fill up shows. You have to have a couple of things like that at some point in your career, but our live show isn’t based around power ballads. Yes, there is a couple of them in there, but many others are just rock and roll.

KS: Yes and you definitely are a rock and roll band.

ND:  Yeah, and when you’re hearing those power ballads live and you hear those guitars crunching, maybe the tempo slows down but not the energy level. Especially with those songs because everyone in the audience is singing along. So that adds a lot of energy right there. The show does not slow down when we do those power ballads, if anything it kinda comes up a notch.  You feel a new energy because everyone in the world has heard those songs so that’s a big moment in the show, but we’re not an hour and a half of just power ballads.

KS:  Since the ’80s you’ve been touring non-stop.  How do you explain that and your audiences have new generations added to them.

ND:  We’ve been able to tour this long because generations have passed this music down to their kids. We have people of every age in our audience.  There a people there in their 70’s and there are people there that are pre-teens.  I saw a little 10-year-old girl singing along with every song in the front row.  That happens a lot of times.  Before The Beatles came along, it hardly ever happened that you and your parents would like the same band. In fact it never happened.  But my parents liked The Beatles. They first kinda established that hey there is nothing wrong with two generations going to the same concert. We see that all the time now. People in their 20’s say that they grew up with our music playing in the house all the time, because their parents were constantly playing our music and  others of that time frame.  We are best buddies with Pat Benatar, Styx, Journey, and Foreigner.  They have had the same kind of career where it’s been passed down, and they still get big crowds at all their shows.

REO speedwagon

KS: You are on the road a lot. That’s had to be difficult with families and getting along with each other being on the road all the time together.  What’s your secret?

ND: Especially when it comes to making a new record or writing new songs, things can get a little touchy, but it’s almost like a family where you get into a big fight and then be okay the next day. We’ve definitely had our spats in the band, some of them bad, but you still have each other and you work it out. I’d say we’re not as bad as a lot of groups and things have really mellowed out in the last couple years where we seldom disagree on anything. I guess we’re like an old married couple where you get to know each others behaviors and you don’t fight about anything any more.  We’ve never stopped touring, where there’s never been a year that we don’t tour, but we do take some years where we play less.

This year is actually one of them. We’ve done twice as many shows in a year as we’re doing this year. We’re just picking out special spots where people like us.  I’m finally after turmoil throughout my life in relationships, I am finally in the happiest personal life I can possibly imagine.  I think a lot of the other guys would say the same thing. So we just don’t want to be gone all the time so we’re playing fewer shows, but there’s still not going to be a year where we don’t play any.So we’re balancing being on the road and being home, because everyone is happy at home.  But when people are going to let you be a rock star when you’re pushing 70, you don’t turn that down.

Read Part two of our interview with Neal Doughty of REO Speedwagon.

So as I wrap up part one of this interview I need to share my excitement with what an awesome conversation Neal and I had.  We spoke for almost a full hour.  It was as though we were old friends swapping old times from long ago, and in a sense we were.  Both from the Midwest, we shared a common understanding of the way of life of the area, and the importance music played for our generation and the culture.  Like many of that generation, music was our thing.  Yes, we had Atari but seriously, we didn’t have the video games we do today, or the social media, cell phones, or even MTV right away (and I’m referring to the music video television with the veejays; not that stuff we see today). We spent hours listening to it in our cars, on the radios, and on our turn tables and these bands and performers were larger than life to us.  We couldn’t imagine ever seeing them in person, let alone interviewing them.  Concerts were few and far between for most, and so our only connection to music was through albums, cassettes, and vinyl and with this diehard fans were created.  My love as a fan was the fuel that propelled Neal and his band mates to a career far from the University of Illinois goals they began with, and the same fuel that propels this photojournalist to bring you music through the lens and pen each and every week.

It was a pleasure to hear the story from Neal’s perspective.  As I was cruising Main Street in Flora with the windows rolled down and blasting my music, he and the rest of the band were going to college and through a love of music themselves, found the course of their lives moving in new directions.  Whether it was playing fraternity houses, outdoor venues in Midwest during torrential storms (which until you live there you cannot fathom their power), or traveling the world ranging crowds that were small, medium, and then huge arenas, they knew it was what was meant to be and followed their dreams to a career that has spanned almost 50 years.  Creatively they started out to bring new music to their classmates and within a few years began writing some of today’s most legendary rock and roll tunes of the days.

As I reflected on the first part of our conversation I couldn’t help wonder what magnificent feats of architecture these men could have achieved had they not followed the path they did.  However the lives their music touched couldn’t have compared. So very glad they too took the chance and played as mashed potatoes were thrown at them and continued despite the fact that some felt that there wasn’t a future in rock and roll.

teagan and the tweeds

Join NYS Music as they cover the upcoming show on August 13 at CMAC where REO Speedwagon will be joined by locals Teagan and the Tweeds.  Gates open at 7pm and show begins at 8pm. Hope to see you all there.

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